F.W. Murnau would enjoy more name recognition had he not died at forty-two on a California road. His first American release, Sunrise, was Cahiers du Cinéma’s “greatest film of all time.” He was killed just after wrapping a troubled Tabu--A Story of the South Seas with Robert Flaherty, and his The Last Laugh/Der letzte Mann is among the best silents. The bulk of his earlier, German films is lost, and, if generally remembered at all, he is associated with Nosferatu the Vampire/Nosferatu--eine Symphonie des Grauens (A Symphony of Horrors).
Re-released with sound in 1930, this patriarch of bloodsucker movies is more widely viewed by audiences in Herzog’s humor-horror remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, while Malkovich plays Murnau as director-protagonist (alongside Dafoe as actor-protagonist and real vampire) in Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire.
Only a single complete copy of the 1922 silent reportedly exists, although cuts have surfaced abroad, since all domestic first prints and negatives were theoretically burned as per the court-ordered settlement with Florence Stoker over unauthorized appropriation of her deceased husband Bram’s Dracula. Place and character names were altered because of her legal action and then switched back in later versions. But it is in an earlier, mangled print of the original that the eerie classic is presented (to Ben Model’s live piano) at the Museum of Modern Art in its series of monster movies accompanying a winter-spring exhibition on Tim Burton.
Without reading Stoker, reviewers regurgitated studio hype about the soundstaged Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “the legend as originally conceived in the 1897 novel,” “going back to the source in Stoker’s novel.” From the first frames, stuff and nonsense.
It is the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau version, from a screenplay by Henrik Galeen, that is the cinema realization of the Irish theatrical manager’s fiction. Herein, in fact, lie the flaws of the film, for after atmospheric first chapters the book turns static, stagey and Victorian and, in place of dramatic narrative, descends into letters and diary entries.
Reflecting that structure, the film uses lengthy intertitles and manages to confuse its own printed words of a “narrator” of happenings in his town of Wisborg in 1843, with those from an explanatory The Book of Vampires. Too, most characters are wimpy or simpering stereotypes, particularly the stilted hero and heroine. He is Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), the Bremen estate agent dispatched to Carpathian Transylvania to close a lucrative sale; she is his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), troubled by his absence, attracted or afflicted by strange forces, and the pure woman who will offer herself until cockcrow to end the “plague” ravaging Europe.
Of lesser personalities familiar from decades of Dracula takes, most digestible is Hutter’s oily employer Knock (Alexander Granach), destined to become the insect-eating Renfield-figure awaiting “the Master!”
Nosferatu is worthwhile on two counts: mise-en-scčne and the actor who is the title (and sole) vampire. Backing off from the stylized artificiality of sets of his countrymen’s Expressionism, Murnau shot in real inhabited town and country Bavarian locations, relying on camera angle, placement and depth of field to convey sinister mood amidst the mundane normal. Most scenes, even nighttime ones, had to be done in daylight, and a bewildered hyena stands in for hard-to-find werewolves; but these do not detract from this work so unlike its contemporaries in its employment of medium shots and vigorous intercutting.
Then there is Count Graf Orlok -- the surname given Karloff in the Bogdanovich horror pastiche Targets -- actually onscreen only a tenth of this print’s eighty-one-minute run time. Seen often as simply a menacing taloned shadow (this vampire also reflects an image in a mirror), the villain is played by the theater’s Max Schreck. Legend says that the actor was so inherently nasty-looking that only snaggly teeth, pointy tips on the ears and maybe bulging eyeballs were added. Skinny and rigid in high-button coat, his Count certainly has nothing of the Romantic sex appeal of familiar incarnations. He vanishes in a puny puff but lives on in stills of a penultimate moment before the sun rises outside the boudoir window.
(Released by Fine Arts Guild; not rated by MPAA.)